KUALA LUMPUR: New Straits Times has been asked to issue an unreserved apology to six civil society organisations named in a front page report alleging a “plot to destabilise the government”.

The six NGOs were Bersih, Centre for Independent Journalism, Lawyers for Liberty, Merdeka Centre, Southeast Centre for E-Media and Suaram.

The local English daily had been given 48 hours to retract the Sept 21 story which alleged that two global funders and nine organisations, including the six, were part of a plot to destabilise the government.

“Such disparaging reports lay the groundwork for a crackdown on civil society as can be seen from the ongoing state harassment campaign against Suaram and the possible use of even more draconian measures,” said Bersih 2.0 co-chair S Ambiga on behalf of the six.

She said that if the daily failed to apologise, the groups were looking at several options, including filing a defamation suit against the paper.

“They have clearly cherry picked at these organisations. Look at what they stand for. They are clearly uncomfortable with exposes, with free and fair elections and access to media. It is, a widening net to clamp down on civil society,” she said.

Ambiga said that NGOs regarded the attack to come from the government as NST was “the mouthpiece and speaks for the government”.

The groups, which regarded the report as a “crude attack on civil society” also said that it was written in a manner that was “one-sided”, “highly irresponsible” and “in bad faith”.

They noted that the report did not feature any comments from the funders or organisations named in the report. Aside from Malaysiakini.com, they claimed that there had been no attempt by the paper to contact the other NGOs for responses after the article was published.

“The report did not offer any fact or evidence to corroborate its claims, relying instead on extracts from secondary references and made insinuations that the said organisations which received funding are involved in ‘destabilising the government’,” they said in a joint statement.

Also complained about was the “sensationalised style” of reporting, quoting unnamed sources over grave allegations of being linked to “foreign hands” out to “destabilise legitimate governments and replace them with client proxies”.

“We view this spate of attacks on civil society as an attempt to distract public attention from serious issues of corruption and abuse of power such as the Scopene submarine and National Feedlot Centre scandals, and the people’s demand for greater democracy, human rights and free and fair elections.”

Business as usual

Meanwhile, Ambiga said that the civil society groups would continue “business as usual” and were always open to enquiries.

“In fact, we may plan a forum to invite people like Dr Chandra Muzaffar and NST so that everything can be explained in the open,” she said.

Activist from SEACEM, Sean Ang, said that NGOs feared that such a report was a “prelude to bigger things”.

“We are worried that this will lead to greater clamp down. For example, what happened in Singapore where they blocked civil society from getting foreign funds through legislation. So we’re asking: What will this government want to do next?”

When contacted, group managing editor of NSTP Abdul Jalil Hamid said: “I have no comments at the moment, I am not aware of the press conference, will let you know (later).”

Teoh El Sen September 25, 2012, Free Malaysia Today